Feature Article - January 2007
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By Jessica Royer Ocken

Input, Output

Over the years, Seattle's Department of Parks and Recreation has developed and implemented a community-input system that is perhaps unique in the United States. Now a companion organization to the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Associated Recreation Council (ARC) began in the late 1960s as groups of citizens who "wanted to supplement the city's recreation programming" at local community centers, explained Michele Finnegan, strategic adviser to the Seattle Parks and Recreation Operations Division.

At first they'd simply collect their own fees and offer a yoga class or two. But by the mid-1970s, these citizen groups were managing substantial amounts of money and programs, so in 1976, the park district formally recognized the councils and formed the ARC.

Each park district facility in the city-from the Japanese Gardens to the Bitter Lake Community Center-now has its own volunteer council to manage programming and activities, and these site-specific councils (as well as a few citywide councils for issues such as senior adult programming or youth sports) are members of the ARC, an organization that was worth some $8 million in 2005.

Because these councils are comprised of members of the local community, they virtually eliminate the need for formal assessments. There are informal assessments in place on an ongoing basis, as the council meets once a month as a whole, along with a paid representative of the park district facility. The Seattle Park District also is implementing a computer system that will streamline evaluation of individual programs and activities.

Although forming an ARC would require extensive restructuring, Finnegan recommends a volunteer advisory council for any community-serving organization.

"It gives [community members] buy-in and ownership," she said. "And it provides a source of volunteers for special events." In addition, these council members are bound to be "big advocates of recreation, and it's nice to have advocates in the community."